CeReNeM, Gender, Diversity, Equality, and Quotas (an update)

Last June, as my first act as the newly appointed Director of CeReNeM, I made a commitment to attain a 50/50 gender balance across the composers represented on CeReNeM’s HCR record label by 2022. With the wonderful visibility of the PRS Foundation #keychange initiative over the past week or so, this seemed an appropriate moment to check in to report some updates and to reflect on the early progress from this initiative. That initial commitment last summer was made publicly so that we had a level of accountability, so it seems important to make the updates on our progress similarly public.

In truth, visible progress for the label has thus far been subtle—most of the label’s releases across 2017–18 were of course already in motion well before our new target was set—but behind the scenes the commitment we made in June has had a dramatic impact on decisions we’ve made about future projects, and it has changed our aims in terms of releases that we’re curating for 2019 and beyond. So far the gender balance commitment has led us to rework the repertoire on two discs that will be released in 2018, bringing in three composers who weren’t previously part of the label’s plans, and it has led us to actively build and develop projects and relationships that will help us tackle the gender disparity in our existing catalogue, bringing in new voices, new repertoire, and perhaps most interestingly, different musical practices than have been represented thus far in our output.

As I said back in September during my brief presentation at Southbank Centre at the Nordic Music Days roundtable discussion on Gender Equality & Diversity, with our current catalogue at a roughly 75/25 male to female ratio, for us to meet our target our forthcoming releases will need to be roughly 25/75. Our commitment is across the label’s output, rather than being a target within a single year of activity (as is the case, for example, with most of the #keychange festivals), reflecting our sense that a wholesale, corrective shift is necessary for a young organisation like ours—we’ll celebrate our 10th anniversary as a label in 2019, so it is not a remotely unreasonable expectation that, across a relatively brief span, we’ll be able to make some significant movement.

The decision we made for the label started a conversation that has had crucial knock-on effects across our activities in CeReNeM. For our visiting artist concert series, for example, this year we made an informal request that all guests consider gender balance in their programming—as a result, all of the CeReNeM concerts have had female composers represented, in some cases requiring a reworking of the originally proposed concert repertoire, and several of the concerts have met or surpassed the 50/50 target. (The fact that all of our guest performers were male is an embarrassing error that will not be replicated in future seasons.) Starting in the next academic year this 50/50 balance will be part of the contractual agreement with all our guest performers. We’ve asked guests to programme at least 50% female or non-binary composers, and so far, across the board, all our invitees have been enthusiastic to meet that expectation. There has been a similar effect in the department’s Electric Spring festival of electronic music, both in the recently completed 2018 edition and in our planning and programming for 2019 (where, if all goes to plan, there will also be a significant education tie-in with our friends at the Yorkshire Sound Women Network).

In our CeReNeM Postgraduate Seminar and Colloquium Series, as a staff we’ve made a concerted effort to target gender balance in the guests we have invited and in the repertoire we address in classroom situations. For my part, all of the composers I’ve discussed this year in my Music of the Last Decade classes identify as female, and with the exception of a session on a very particular topic (dealing with ‘anti-matter’ and conceptual notation), that was also the case in my classes in our series on Material. At the undergraduate level, my colleague Bryn Harrison and I have reworked the repertoire for our Music in the 21st Century module, and we’ll continue adjusting the gender balance of those class sessions next year.

Less formally, all of these activities and initiatives have been very much a part of our conversations as a community this year. We’ve talked about these issues in our postgraduate CeReNeM Colloquium (in a great session led by my colleague Liza Lim), and, even more often, over post-colloquium and post-concert drinks at the pub. What has been most striking for me through the academic year is hearing individual stories from our students and from my colleagues. As much as our initiative is in some ways data-driven, somehow seemingly objective and statistical, it has been clear in these conversations that this issue is personal, emotional, and absolutely central to the experiences and identities of the people in our community.

And here’s the important point. Quotas work. Through all the examples above, there’s one very obvious thread: quotas change behaviours. Quotas guide policies and practices, and through those practices quotas eventually change environments and communities. Those who follow me on twitter or interact with me on facebook know that I’ve become a bit of a zealot on this particular issue over the last year, but that’s in part because I’ve seen the effectiveness of this approach firsthand. The initial target was abstract, but the results most certainly aren’t. In the end—like everything we do in music—this is about art, and art is about people. It’s about opportunities for expression, for listening, for understanding, for reconsidering, for speaking, for emoting. It seems totally clear to me that, as people who love art, we want those opportunities, platforms, and voices to be as open, equitable, and diverse as possible.